One of the most interesting things about works of art is the people who experience them. Our individual differences, subtle though they may be, result in countless interpretations of the same work of art. How does one figure out which one is right? Is there even a “right” interpretation of art?
I don’t know. Even if I had more than a vague familiarity with aesthetic philosophy, I doubt I would; art just boggles the mind and slips free from every attempt to categorize or explain it. But it is fascinating that two different listeners of the same song could take away two entirely different messages from it.
Sometimes the difference boils down to a single word. Take, for example, the song “Jesus, Etc.” by Wilco:
Lovely little tune. But it’s the first few words that got me thinking: “Jesus, don’t cry / You can rely on me, honey”.
Is the name of Jesus being used as an interjection, or is Jesus being addressed? Let’s assume the former for a minute. It’s the usage one would immediately suppose, this song coming from a secular artist. In that case, the song is probably addressed to a lover experiencing some sort of grief. Casting the song in a non-religious spotlight, some have gone so far as to interpret the line “Our love is all of God’s money / Everyone is a burning sun” as “effectively stripping God of his might while empowering us to recognize the value of our relationships while we can”. 
Things become much more interesting, even a tad uncomfortable, if we assume that Jesus is the one being addressed in this song. Who calls Jesus “honey”? Seriously. And yet, there is something to be said for this. Shouldn’t we be that intimate with Jesus?
The aforementioned line about God’s money is also entirely redefined by reading it through the lens of religion:
“Our love is all of God’s money,” Tweedy sings – meaning, of course, that the sum total of love in the world is what God’s got to work with. We set the limit on it – it can be as finite or infinite as we want it to be, depending on how loving we ourselves are. It is almost as though the song suggests that God’s strength is somehow the strength of human beings – that the two forces are one, and thus God has a strange sort of reliance on humans (for their redemptive work performed on His behalf), just as human beings need to rely on God, on the Love which represents Him.
-Sam Buntz | The Muted Trumpet 
Buntz goes on to note the role reversal of the singer offering comfort to Jesus instead of vice versa. Crying is a part of being human, and Jesus did weep just as we do (John 11:35). But in this song, says Buntz, “Christ then appears as a figure standing in the midst of apocalypse, affected by the very catastrophes that are befalling creation: ‘Tall buildings shake / Voices escape / Singing sad, sad songs / Tuned to chords / Strung down your cheek / Bitter melodies / Turning your orbit around’”.
What we have then, are two separate conclusions. By the end of the song, are we saved by the love within us apart from God, or is, as Buntz suggests, “the love that burns in human beings” Christ Himself? Which did the songwriter intend? Which is the valid interpretation?
In the end, there’s no way to answer that. (The anti-intentionalist school of thought goes so far as to argue the author’s intention is totally irrelevant and should not be considered.) And if we can’t even agree as to whether the songwriter’s take should matter to us individually, then perhaps finding an objective definition of an inherently subjective thing (art) is a wild goose chase.
Still, I think the song takes on a much deeper meaning when interpreted from a religious perspective. Anyone else is quite entitled to their own opinion. In fact, I encourage you to listen to it again. I haven’t touched on all the lyrics, so think about them. Draw your own conclusions. (Is it implied that Jesus is smoking, for example? What could that mean?) And by all means, comment with your thoughts. There are so many questions to be found in every single thing we encounter that one could easily get lost. Still, discussion is the thing that keeps wisdom alive.
Just a little amateur philosophy for a Saturday night. Next on the to do list: calling in an order for Chinese food. Maybe in the next post we can talk about whether it’s okay to name a kind of chicken after a military officer despite it having no connection to him whatsoever…
1. radiocures. “Wilco – ‘Jesus, etc.’ Meaning”. HubPages. 26 February 2010. Online.
2. Buntz, Sam. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Desire’s Apocalypse”. The Muted Trumpet. 18 November 2012. Online.